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Petrillo--American Phenomenon


When one man gives forth with a sweeping ukase that shakes a $150,000,000 industry, threatens to run upward of 500 radio stations out of business, and cuts off one of the American public's favorite forms of entertainment, indignant emotions and explosive issues are bound to boil over. And so the order of music's muscle man, J. Caesar Petrillo, that a week ago Friday stopped dead the cutting of all new phonograph records, has been dynamic in its repercussions. These have ranged all the way from a patriotic appeal by Elmer Davis and Peglarian accusations of dictatorial unionism by the New York Times, to a restraint of trade injunction by the Federal Government.

The issue has been confused and colored by the figure of the picturesque Petrillo. As a labor leader with a $46,000 annual income and completely dictatorial powers over the professional lives of the American federation of Musicians' 138,000 members, he is a distinctly American phenomenon. To musicians, whose torch he has faithfully carried for twenty-two years with notable increases in wage scales and decreases in amateur competition, he is a popular and useful phenomenon. To musical artists, of whom he has said that there is "no difference between Heifetz playing the fiddle and a fiddler in a tavern," to the non-union Boston Symphony, to the moguls of canned music and juke boxes, and to the record buying public he is an obstinately unpleasant phenomenon.

And, fundamentally, it is in Petrillo the phenomenon that the lasting significance of the AFM-recording interest fight rests. His recent edict emphasizes the startlingly parallel tactics of modern unionism and big business or not so many years ago. Petrillo's methods are as single-purposed and his position is as unassailable as those of any Henry Ford of business's laissez-faire days. In all his smaller undertakings of the past, from the day he got the closed shop for all Chicago musicians to his recent cancellation of a student orchestra broadcast from Interlochen on the grounds of amateur competition, he has been successful. It is conceivable and much to be hoped, however, that this time he has bruised too many toes to come out with his record of wins untouched. Now is the time for a new court ruling that will reverse the past precedent exempting unions from restraint of trade legislation.

As to the basic and little emphasized complaint of the AFM against the recording industry, corrective steps should be taken. It is in this point, that musicians do not gain a proportional royalty return for their records played in juke boxes or over the radio, that the kernel of legitimate complaint in Petrillo's truckload of hot air lies. Ironically, the legal reasoning that prevents such returns, by declaring that companies have no post-sale control over records, is the same that will now prevent all new recordings when Petrillo's ruling that subsist on canned music. But the answer does not lie in dictatorial unionism and Petrillo's tactless tactics. These things and what they stand for must soon go the way of their big business counterparts.

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